Change must happen at all levels: Why we need Rainbow Local Government

Local governments play an important role in the lives of citizens in the six Australian states and the Northern Territory. They ensure that local communities function effectively on a daily basis and are provided with the basic services and facilities that Australian communities expect to find in suburbs, towns, and rural areas. They also have the potential to be a catalyst for building local identity and social cohesion, depending on the priorities, resources, and capabilities of each government area.

This potential can be realised when local governments prioritise playing a critical role in fostering a culture that is inclusive, responsible, and accessible to lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and gender diverse, intersex, queer, asexual (LGBTIQA+) people. It should be noted that the standards of conduct for all councillors stipulate that they must take positive action to eliminate discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or physical features. Balancing that on top of many and various competing duties can prove to be a challenge. This is why advocacy plays a critical role in bringing this responsibility to the forefront for council staff and councillors alike.

For far too long, local governments have been characterised by three key issues; rates, roads, and rubbish. However, there was an important cultural shift with the launch of an ongoing campaign coordinated by the Victorian Pride Lobby, an LGBTIQA+ grassroots advocacy organisation, that changed that. Rainbow Local Government was launched in August 2020 to encourage LGBTIQA+ people to stand for election at a local level and to also identify allied candidates that could advocate for the rights, safety, and inclusion of LGBTIQA+ people in their local community. The campaign had two goals. The first was to double the number of LGBTIQA+ people standing for and being elected to local government because despite advances over the years, only about 1.5 per cent of Victoria’s councillors openly identified as LGBTIQA+. The second was to identify councillors to act as allies to actively support their local LGBTIQA+ communities.

As a result of Rainbow Local Government, 131 LGBTIQA+ candidates stood for the 2020 Victorian local government elections, tripling the amount that stood in 2016. A record number of 29 openly LGBTIQA+ candidates were elected (doubling the number of LGBTIQA+ candidates elected in 2016), meaning Victoria has local governments that are more reflective of the communities they represent. Importantly, the campaign identified and engaged 269 elected allies to commit to supporting LGBTIQA+ priorities.

When elected, LGBTIQA+ councillors have a proven track record of working across political divides to achieve tangible outcomes in their councils and act as an important source of education and awareness on LGBTIQA+ issues for other councillors and the community alike. This is critical when implementing LGBTIQA+ priorities that can help the local LGBTIQA+ community, organisations, and businesses to thrive, and show the broader community that the local area is actively fostering inclusion. It can also have flow-on benefits to local businesses in the tourism, hospitality, and accommodation sections, and can improve the health and wellbeing of LGBTIQA+ locals.

Further successes of the Rainbow Local Government include a record number of Victorian councils across metropolitan Melbourne and regional Victoria passing reforms, ranging from a commitment to fly the rainbow flag on LGBTIQA+ days of significance to establishing LGBTIQA+ advisory committees and action plans. While this campaign is currently Victorian based, it can and should be replicated across the country. It serves as an important reminder that minoritised communities can organise to have their issues prioritised at a local government level. This can also serve to foster a culture of change where these communities’ issues become voting priorities for residents at local government elections.

Equally, social services sector organisations across the country should also seek to engage with their local governments to build critical and trusted relationships, explore opportunities for partnerships in service delivery, or raise the profile of a local issue. These strategic engagements recognise the critical role local governments play in supporting the health, wellbeing, and social cohesion of residents and local businesses alike and set forward a path to work together cooperatively and constructively, in the best interest of their communities.

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